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Follow the Money, Follow the Data

The following guest post from Martin Tisné was first published on his personal blog.

Money tunnel by RambergMediaImages, CC-BY-SA on Flickr

Some thoughts which I hope may be helpful in advance of the ‘follow the data‘ hack day this week-end:

The open data sector has quite successfully focused on socially-relevant information: fixing potholes a la http://www.fixmystreet.com/, adopting fire hydrants a la http://adoptahydrant.org/. My sense is that the next frontier will be to free the data that can enable citizens, NGOs and journalists to hold their governments to account. What this will likely mean is engaging in issues such as data on extractives’ transparency, government contracting, political finance, budgeting etc. So far, these are not the bread and butter of the open data movement (which isn’t to say there aren’t great initiatives like http://openspending.org/). But they should be:

At its heart, this agenda revolves around ‘following the money’. Without knowing the ‘total resource flow’:

  • Parents’ associations cannot question the lack of textbooks in their schools by interrogating the school’s budget
  • Healthcare groups cannot access data related to local spending on doctors, nurses
  • Great orgs such as Open Knowledge Foundation or BudgIT cannot get the data they need for their interpretative tools (e.g. budget tracking tool)
  • Investigative journalists cannot access the data they need to pursue a story

Our field has sought to ‘follow the money’ for over two decades, but in practice we still lack the fundamental ability to trace funding flows from A to Z, across the revenue chain. We should be able to get to what aid transparency experts call ‘traceability’ (the ability to trace aid funds from the donor down the project level) for all, or at least most fiscal flows.

Open data enables this to happen. This is exciting: it’s about enabling follow the money to happen at scale. Up until now, instances of ‘following the money’ have been the fruit of the hard work of investigative journalists, in isolated instances.

If we can ensure that data on revenues (extractives, aid, tax etc), expenditures (from planning to allocation to spending to auditing), and results (service delivery data) is timely, accessible, comparable and comprehensive, we will have gone a long way to helping ‘follow the money’ efforts reach the scale they deserve.

Follow the Money is a pretty tangible concept (if you disagree, please let me know!) – it helps demonstrate how government funds buy specific outcomes, and how/whether resources are siphoned away. We need to now make it a reality.

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